Tate: Guenther a super sidekick for Big Ten commish
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The relationship of two compatriots might not be over — Ron Guenther might serve in some capacity for the Big Ten — but for now commissioner Jim Delany loses his closest ally when the Illini athletic director steps down June 30.
Whether it was the Big Ten Network, favorable bowl agreements, expansion that brought in Nebraska, or any number of major initiatives, Guenther has been "Robin" to Delany's "Batman." They always thought along similar lines. And during their lengthy terms, Delany has grown into the most prominent administrator in collegiate sports.
"Ron has always understood the big picture," Delany said Thursday, "and I haven't worked with a guy more collegial.
"At Illinois, he breathed loyalty because he gives it. He empathizes with coaches and was honest with those guys. A lot of directors give coaches support at one level (resources) but don't always stand behind them in tough times the way he does. And he demands that they do it the right way.
"Ron has never been a self promoter. Everything he has done has been in the best interest of Illinois."
No easy task
Few jobs are as complex, as thankless and as misunderstood as these major AD positions.
Where once it was the province of aging football coaches, it has become a complicated business operation emphasizing fundraising, compliance, PR, facilities expansion and the oversight of multiple men's and women's sports. ADs are thrown into the spotlight for a few weeks every five or seven years when they hire football and basketball coaches, some using search firms and committees like the one currently being used to replace Guenther.
And if the coaches don't win or infractions are committed, the ADs get the heat ... even if it is beyond their control.
Indiana, for example, has had 12 ADs since Bo McMillin stepped down after World War II, and five since Clarence Doninger took over in 1991. When Fred Glass took charge in 2009, fans called on him to uplift the ever-sagging football program ... as though he could. In other words, fire another Hoosier coach in hopes a miracle will happen.
Michigan turned the marketing business on its ear under Don Canham (1968-88) but has bumped along with five directors during the Guenther term. Michigan State shows six dating back to George Perles in the early '90s. Minnesota has hired seven since star athlete Paul Giel ended his 17-year term in 1988 ... and six of them stayed no more than four years.
The excessive turnover should tell you something about the job.
Leaving on a good note
Guenther was frustrated by the ill timing that wouldn't allow him to know who he'd soon be reporting to. Now Larry DeBrock's search committee is bucking a similar problem in interviewing candidates before a permanent chancellor is confirmed.
That seems as backward as naming Lou Tepper the football coach before choosing Guenther as athletic director in 1992. This unfortunate timing makes DeBrock's job difficult because prominent directors won't know who their boss is.
The good part, as mentioned earlier, is that Guenther leaves the department in far better shape than any of his predecessors.
Brace yourself for a history lesson. One after another, past Illini ADs have left a mess for their predecessors to clean up.
— George Huff was brilliant for his time, but his tenure was sagging due to football coach Bob Zuppke's disregard for recruiting by the time it became necessary in the 1930s. Zuppke's football teams went 41-52-4 in his last 12 seasons. Crowds were down. The home game against Michigan, which drew 67,886 when Red Grange ran wild in 1924, continued as the UI's biggest Big Ten draw — yes, Army and Notre Dame attracted more — but 1930s home dates against the Wolverines ranged from 20,000 to the low 30,000s. Nor was basketball anything special, the UI posting a 65-55 Big Ten audit in the 10 seasons ending in 1936, when Huff stepped down. The UI program had basically gone stagnant.
— Nor did it perk up under Wendell Wilson, caught in a firestorm over pro-con Zuppke zealots. Wilson was forced out by a dramatic athletic board vote in 1941.
— Young basketball coach Doug Mills took on the dual role just as he was bringing in Gene Vance, Andy Phillip and the Whiz Kids. Then, too, the arrival of Ray Eliot as football coach brightened the early-war picture. Mills' reputation was such that, at his peak, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for Big Ten commissioner. But it did not end that way. Losing touch, he was forced out in 1966, igniting the revelation by assistant Mel Brewer of an illegal "slush fund" that Mills had approved and participated in.
— The popular Vance took over an impossible situation after the Big Ten insisted that Illinois be dropped from membership unless head coaches Pete Elliott and Harry Combes were removed. Vance served until 1972, dealing with campus unrest, curfews and frequently uninspiring performances in the revenue sports. He was obligated to fire his close friend Jim Valek — they had served together at LaSalle-Peru — after the football team went 8-32 under him. And Harv Schmidt's basketball team slipped to consecutive 5-9 finishes in the Big Ten.
— Cecil Coleman ran a tight ship with weak revenue and little thought of expanding aging facilities as structural problems forced him to work on the stadium. The financial restraints were such that some NCAA qualifiers in minor sports were not allowed to advance. Chancellor Bill Gerberding, on campus less than a year, set sail for Washington but fired Coleman in 1979 as his last act, apparently assuming that anyone would be better. The UI was wading through seven consecutive sub-.500 Big Ten basketball seasons and the Gary Moeller era (6-24-3) in football.
— Illini spirit was uplifted by the arrival of flamboyant Californians Neale Stoner and football coach Mike White. Sellouts became routine, and it appeared the '80s really would belong to the Illini ... but it imploded with White resigning after the 1987 season due to multiple run-ins with NCAA investigators (his last three teams were 13-19-2), and Stoner stepping down due to various improprieties that included improper use of staff and a deepening debt.
— Football coach John Mackovic tackled the dual job when Stoner departed in 1988, and his success in football was remarkable considering the time consumed by the lengthy Deon Thomas case and his AD duties. He left for Texas prior to the 1991 John Hancock Bowl, and the UI promoted Tepper as head coach before naming Guenther as AD in 1992.
Many of these UI athletic directors had their moments before hitting the wall. Facilities drew little attention for more than a half-century. One after another, Guenther's five predecessors found themselves attached to events — some quite serious — that soiled the school's reputation and ultimately caused them to leave. And the facilities languished.
Like most who proceeded him, Guenther didn't see as many victories as he would have liked. But unlike past directors, he has provided his successor with all the ingredients needed for long-range success: state-of-the-art facilities for training and events ($300 million in improvements), sound finances, productive marketers, a respected compliance staff and strong academic support. More than that, he has taken the first major step in the long-awaited renovation of the Assembly Hall.
The other 10 schools in the conference (prior to Nebraska) averaged four directors each during his term. That means, on average, they changed directors every four to five years.
Perhaps, after 19 years, it was time for him to step aside. And in so doing, he is leaving the department in vastly better shape than anyone before him.
— At one point this spring, Dan Hartleb's baseball team was 12-21 and in the process of losing 8 of 12 midweek games to in-state rivals. The outlook was dismal. But after a school year in which the UI lost virtually all of its close football and basketball games, Hartleb's battlers shared a Big Ten championship by rallying to win 11 conference games in which they trailed ... Matt Dittman's blast with two out in the ninth capping another incredible comeback (down 5-3, won 7-5) Saturday. Indiana swept co-champion Michigan State last weekend, and the UI swept Indiana.
— Longtime collegiate basketball official Ed Hightower, who recently slept in a recliner for seven weeks while recovering from rotator cuff surgery, has cut his workload under 60 games and says he'll retire within the next two years. He is part of the old guard that is being replaced by younger refs.
— The combination of leaving Utah (seemingly forcing Jerry Sloan's retirement) and landing in distant New Jersey has seriously impacted Deron Williams' reputation. A top-level guard, previously compared with the best, he was left off the 15-man NBA all-star team and was down the line of honorable mentions. It's hard to be recognized when you're not in the playoffs.
— Before predicting how Illinois will fare against basketball rivals Missouri, Maryland and UNLV, please tell me how those teams will change under Frank Haith, Mark Turgeon and Dave Rice. All three teams had distinct styles under Mike Anderson, Gary Williams and Lon Kruger. Will they be as good as they were?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.